Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Incomplete realities

Is an incomplete presentation of reality – or the reality upon which a fictional television show’s plot is based – better than no presentation of that reality? This is the central question of this posting.

Over a month ago, the television series “24” aired a preview episode, which was followed up by four episodes which aired on the 11th and 12th of January. As is common with 24, a myriad of plots and sub-plots have been presented thus far. The plot addressed in this blog is the genocide occurring in the fictional state of Sangala, which appears to be a rehashing of the Rwandan conflict. One of the opening scenes in the preview episode takes place in Sangala, where a group of young boys has been rounded up by a warlord’s militia and are indoctrinated into the militia through a combination of mind control, possible intoxication, peer pressure and fear. As viewers, we do not see the rounding up of these boys beyond their riding in a truck and then appearing at the militia base. The idea of child soldiers, and the repellent nature of using children for warfare, is reinforced at several points after these scenes. The first is when a group of children, including some from a boy’s orphanage where Jack Bauer has been working and hiding, is targeted for recruitment by the militia and violently taken away to join the militia. The reality of the threat to the boys at the orphanage continues, when they are hunted down by the militia and ultimately saved by Jack and the headmaster of the orphanage, after Jack is tortured by a militia leader seeking information on the whereabouts of the boys. When Jack is leading the boys to the American embassy – after their headmaster sacrificed himself to save them – he is confronted by one of the children first seen in the indoctrination ceremony scene. The child holds a gun to Jack, who is ultimately able to talk him into putting the gun down and leaving the group alone. Finally, in the Sangala montage, Jack trades his freedom for the ability to guarantee the boys from the orphanage safe passage to the United States. While Jack is attempting to access the American embassy, we see a woman and her young child pleading to be allowed into the embassy and onto a helicopter. She tells the embassy official that her husband was killed in a prior war in Sangala and that staying in the country would surely be a death sentence for her child; ultimately, she is refused entry to the embassy.

During the January 11th and 12th episodes, the new president, Allison Taylor, makes a decision to send American troops into Sangala after 200,000 people have been killed in the genocide. The former Prime Minister of Sangala, who is a resistance leader to the genocide, stresses to President Taylor the need for intervention in order to save the lives of his people. When, later in the plot, it is revealed that the leader of the genocide is in possession of a device which could cause the deaths of untold numbers of Americans, President Taylor must make a choice between pulling back from Sangala to comply with the demands of a genocidal regime or going forward with the knowledge that she is endangering the American public in doing so. In discussions with her staff and the former Prime Minister, the constant reference is to the people – including several thousand women and children at a refugee camp –who will be killed without US military assistance.

In its first episodes, 24 has done an admirable job in addressing the problem of child soldiers in conflict. While the issue has become increasingly important in the international law realm, it is still a relatively new issue for the public at large and inclusion in a popular television series is a compelling way to elevate the issue within popular discourse. Additionally, the focus on the consequences of Rwanda-like conflicts on the mortality of women and children is admirable, as well as compelling. However, while these elements of the Sangala plot do portray the reality of past conflicts, such as Rwanda, and current conflicts, such as Darfur, the Sangala plot does not portray the full realm of reality in these and numerous other conflicts. The missing element in this incomplete reality to which I refer is the use of sexual violence in conflict.

Rape as a weapon of war has grown to truly staggering numbers in conflicts across the globe. From Bosnia to Rwanda, rape of women, girls, and in fact men and boys, was a hallmark of the brutalities inflicted. These communities are still dealing with the after effects of systematic rape in conflict, as well as other attendant forms of sexual violence, from sexual slavery to forced pregnancy to forced abortion. Rape and sexual violence feature prominently as weapons of war in current conflicts as well, and indeed the occurrence of rape in Darfur has been identified as an epidemic. When child soldiers are recruited, it is often after an attack on a village or other area in which the families of the children are raped and killed. And boys are not the only ones taken to camps. Women and girls are often taken to camps and used for sexual slavery as well as domestic work and, on occasion, as fighters. Thus, in order to convey the complete reality of the conflicts upon which the Sangala plot is based, it would be necessary for 24 to delve into the issue of rape and sexual violence at some level.

Certainly, these are not easy subjects to address on primetime television. However, in constructing Sangala and making it such a central role in the plot – as well as the moral issued raised – raising the full compliment of horrors of the conflicts upon which the Sangala situation is based would better inform the public as to both the issues faced by society and law during and after these conflicts as well as the full range of moral issues involved in the question of intervention in such situations. There might not be an easy answer to the question posed by this blog post, however, given the ability of television series to educate the public on otherwise lesser-known issues, it is a vital question.


24 Show Details, http://www.fox.com/24/
Five Years On: No Justice for Sexual Violence in Darfur, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, April, 2008, available at http://hrw.org/reports/2008/darfur0408/ (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
Sexual Violence and Its Consequences among Displaced Persons in Darfur and Chad, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, April 2005, available at http://hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/darfur0505/ (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
Seeking Justice: The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in the Congo War, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, March 2005, available at http://hrw.org/reports/2005/drc0305/ (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
Struggling to Survive: Barriers to Justice for Rape Victims in Rwanda, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, September 2004, available at http://hrw.org/reports/2004/rwanda0904/ (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
The War Within the War: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Eastern Congo, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, June 2002, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/drc/ (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Kosovo: Rape as a Weapon of “Ethnic Cleansing,” HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, 2000, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/fry/index.htm#TopOfPage (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Rwanda.htm (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
War Against Women, the Use of Rape as A Weapon In Congo’s Civil War, CBS NEWS, Aug. 17, 2008, available at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/11/60minutes/main3701249.shtml?source=search_story (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).

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